It will be a slow process recovering the bodies from the Lao Airlines plane that crashed into the Mekong River, killing all 49 people on board, including six Australians.
The Lao Airlines ATR 7620 twin turboprop aircraft, purchased from France in March this year, was making an approach to the airport in “severe weather” and strong winds on Wednesday evening when it plunged into the Mekong River near Pakse Airport in southern Laos.
A formal investigation has been launched but Australia’s ambassador to Laos, Lynda Worthaisong, said it would be a slow process because the area was difficult to access and the plane is underwater.
A team of Lao aviation investigators was dispatched early on Thursday, as recovery of bodies from the brown waters of the Mekong River pressed ahead at the crash site near Pakse in Champasak province, the final destination of flight QV301.
Lao Airline officials at a press conference in Vientiane on Thursday confirmed there were six Australians among the 49 passengers and crew on board the ATR 7620 twin turboprop aircraft.
The passenger list also included 17 Laotians, seven French, five Thais, three South Koreans, two Vietnamese, a Chinese, a Canadian, a Myanmarese, a Taiwanese and an American.
Among the Australians killed was Sydney tax agent Gavin Rhodes, his wife Phoumalaysy (Lea), their daughter and baby son. The other Australian victims was Michael Creighton, 42, an aid worker, and his father Gordon Creighton, 71, who was visiting his son in Laos.
Ms Worthaisong told AAP the crash site, while close to Pakse town, was difficult to access, “so that’s obviously hampering recovery efforts and the plane is in the river presumably with most of the passengers on board.”
However, as of late Thursday, contacts close to the investigation said none of the bodies of the six Australians had yet been recovered.
“We’re in contact with the families and providing consular support,” Ms Worthaisong said.
She said hopes held by airline officials of rapid progress in any investigation were optimistic.
“To be honest the plane is still under the water. It may take some time, given the challenges associated with the recovery effort. I think it may take some time,” she said.
Debris could be seen floating in the river at the scene of the disaster, while suitcases were wedged in mud on the riverbank.
Backpacks, an aeroplane propeller and passports were among the debris scattered on the riverbank.
A team of 50 divers from the Thai navy as well as a charity foundation from the northern Thai town of Ubon Ratchathani are assisting in the recovery efforts.
“So far eight bodies have been found. We don’t yet know their nationalities,” said Yakao Lopangkao, director-general of Lao’s Department of Civil Aviation, who was at the crash site in Pakse, in southern Laos.
“We haven’t found the plane yet. It is underwater. We’re trying to use divers to locate it,” he told AP.
He ruled out any chance of finding survivors.
“There is no hope. The plane appears to have crashed very hard before entering the water.”
Some bodies were found as far as 20 kilometres from the crash site, he said.
“We have asked villagers and people who live along the river to look for bodies and alert authorities when they see anything,” he told AP.
Some of the bodies were taken to a mortuary at a Chinese temple in Pakse.
Three bodies draped in blue plastic sheets were seen in the building, which was guarded by about 10 policemen, some armed, who turned away onlookers.
“They are foreigners from the crash,” staff at the centre told AFP, adding that their nationalities were unknown.
Mr Lopangkao told the Vientiane Times the accident was probably caused by the bad weather associated with tropical storm Nari.